SEATTLE — The high-water mark for Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks offence occurred on Monday night, Dec. 2, when they shredded the New Orleans Saints 34-7.
It was a dominating performance.
Wilson threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns, and expertly directed an attack that racked up 429 total yards — at a clip of 6.2 yards per play.
Then someone pulled the plug from the tub, and the Seahawks offence’s mojo has been draining ever since.
If it isn’t already, this should be every Seattle fan’s foremost concern heading into Sunday’s NFC championship game against the arch-rival San Francisco 49ers here at CenturyLink Field (6:30 p.m. EST, CTV/FOX).
The accompanying chart shows the stark difference between Wilson’s productivity and efficiency up to and including that Monday night win, and in the five games since.
To summarize, whereas Wilson through Week 13 completed 65% of his passes for 219 yards per game, a solid 22-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a shiny 108.0 passer rating, since then — in the final four regular-season games, and in last Sunday’s 23-15 divisional playoff win against New Orleans — Wilson has completed only 57% of his throws for just 158 yards per game, a 4-to-3 TD-to-INT ratio and a subpar 77.4 passer rating.
The entire Seahawks offence has deflated along with Wilson.
In the past five games it has produced only 18.6 points per game (excluding defensive scores) and is averaging only 4.6 yards per play.
One statistic that sums up the entire shocking regression is Seattle’s third-down conversion rate. Through Week 13, Wilson and Co. converted 41% (62-of-153). Since then, only 29.2% (19-of-65).
To show how bad that is, the worst team in the league during the regular season at converting third downs was Jacksonville — at 31.1%.
So what the hell has happened? What’s gone wrong? Why is Russell Wilson suddenly struggling?
No one outside of the Seahawks locker room knows for sure. Publicly, Seattle coaches and players this week pointed to “little execution things here and there,” as tight end Luke Willson phrased it to me on Friday.
So we turned to one of the most astute NFL analysts in the business, Greg Cosell of NFL Films, the senior producer of ESPN’s informative X’s-and-O’s program, NFL Matchup. Cosell is as adept at analyzing coaches’ tape as anyone, and he indeed has noticed a decided downturn in Seattle’s play on offence.
“There are a couple of things going on here,” Cosell said in a phone interview on Saturday morning. “When teams win and make the playoffs, obviously the quarterback — public perception-wise — gets a ton of the credit. But you have to understand what the Seahawks are.
“They’re a run-first team with a quarterback who, for the most part, has played smart football, efficient football, safe football — but whose running ability has sort of captured people’s attention and made him appear as though he’s a better player than he is.”
That’s a strong statement.
Wilson has been largely portrayed as one of the leading, if not the leading, figure in the recent wave of dual-threat quarterbacks invading the league over the past three years.
Cosell (above) isn’t sold on him as yet.
“Spectacular runs are seen over and over on highlight shows, and with this newfound sense that that’s what NFL quarterbacking has become — running around — it has raised a guy like Russell Wilson to a level higher than his actual performance.”
That might imply that the speedy, 5-foot-11Wilson is nothing more than a deluxe version of the dreaded ‘game manager’ breed of quarterback. An Alex Smith with better wheels. True, Greg?
“In some ways, yes,” Cosell said. “But he’s a more talented player than Alex Smith, because he’s a better thrower and a more dynamic mover. But conceptually, yes.”
Cosell said this week he approached the statistics crew at NFL Films to see if what he’d been seeing on tape since early December — a significant dropoff in Wilson’s and Seattle’s effectiveness — was backed up by numbers.
It was, beyond even our accompanying statistics. What Cosell is seeing on tape is not encouraging for Seahawks fans. They might want to read the following with one eye closed.
“What’s happened in the last five weeks is this, and I can’t tell you why,” Cosell said. “I can only tell you what the film shows, as I don’t know what’s in Russell Wilson’s head.
“The last five weeks he has become tentative in the pocket. He’s not turning it loose when there are throws that are there. He has been less accurate … He’s missing throws.
“He has been quicker to abandon the pocket, too. And I don’t know the reason. It could be because he can’t see (over the linemen), because he’s uncomfortable. I am just telling you that he has been quicker to abandon the pocket and give up on plays that often end up being there.”
As a result, Cosell said, Wilson has become “much more” of what he calls a “random” quarterback, rather than a “structured” quarterback. In other words, a passer who relies more on freelancing outside the pocket, whose chances of success become random, rather than consistently reliable. Thus, poorer.
“But because he’s on a great team, a lot of people don’t focus on that, and it can be camouflaged and compensated for by the rest of his strong team,” Cosell said.
“And here’s the real element that’s telling. I don’t have to interpret this. Their offence is very limited in terms of their pass concepts. I’m not making this up, or trying to say anything negative.
“They are running a very limited pass game right now. All you can do is say, Why are they doing that? I don’t know why they’re doing that.”
Have the Seahawks coaches scaled back their offensive sophistication this season, compared to last year when Wilson’s acumen as a rookie passer seemingly improved with every game?
“My sense it’s a little scaled back, but it’s been this way mostly (since Wilson entered the NFL),” Cosell said.
Certainly one factor for the recent swoon is that the Seahawks have faced strong defences four times in this five-game stretch: San Francisco’s (Dec. 8), Arizona’s (Dec. 22), St. Louis’ (Dec. 29) and New Orleans’ (last Saturday).
Another reason: the Seahawks offensive line has been a mess most of the season, because of injuries.
“That’s clearly a factor,” Cosell said, “because there were some stretches this season where Wilson did not have a lot of time. I mean, he really didn’t have a chance.”
Have all those forced mid-season pocket bailouts left Wilson with happy feet?
“Could be,” Cosell said.
Which leads us to this game against the Niners.
The last time the teams played, at Candlestick Park six weeks ago, the Niners defence mostly corralled, and smothered, Wilson. He ran but once for two yards, and threw for just 178 (with an interception) in a 19-17 San Francisco victory.
“He didn’t have use of his legs that day because the Niners took it away,” Cosell said. “He made a few passes. There was a bust on the touchdown he threw to (tight end) Luke Willson, so obviously he made the throw. And he had one or two other nice throws, but he missed some throws in that game that were there.”
That’s scary stuff if you bleed green, blue, silver and white.
We’ll give the last word to Wilson. He was asked at his Friday news conference about the five-game swoon.
“At the end of the day I’m not a stats person,” the 25-year-old said. “Obviously I want to lead the league in stats and all of that kind of stuff because that usually shows that your team is winning games, but at the same time we’re built to run the football, we’re built to play-action the ball and give different looks and then throw the football over the field and do a lot of different things.
“So I’m not really worried about that. We’re 14-3 and in the NFC championship against the 49ers. It doesn’t get any better.”
But Wilson probably is going to have to play significantly better than he has since Week 13 if he and the Seahawks hope to play in Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb. 2.
Wilson’s dropoff, by the sober numbers:
These contrasting statistics underscore the stark dropoff in productivity and efficiency from QB Russell Wilson since Seattle crushed New Orleans on Dec. 2:
Through Week 13 (12 games):
198-of-305 (64.9% completion rate)
219 passing yards per game
108.0 passer rating
62-of-153 third-down conversions (40.5%)
Since Week 13 (5 games):
68-of-120 (56.7% completion rate)
158 passing yards per game
77.4 passer rating
19-of-65 third-down conversions (29.2%)